Murat Bakeev, 2022–23 HOPE Center Visiting Scholar

Murat Bakeev
Murat Bakeev

Fifty years ago, theory was the name of the game in economics. But that started to change in the 1970s, thanks in part to new data surveys and the desktop computer. Today, it’s empirical studies that seem to have more cachet—perhaps too much cachet, warns Murat Bakeev, a 2022–23 HOPE Center visiting scholar.

“The data and the computers we have now are so good that it’s become easy to put a lot of faith in empirical work,” Murat says. “But there have always been people who have raised questions about data-driven analyses while reminding us that theory still has a lot to offer too.”

Murat is writing about those people, so-called anti-empiricists who, when it comes to the enormous potential people see in numbers and advanced statistical techniques, advise us to slow down and be a little more cautious.

Murat finds in the history of economics a rich store of arguments that are skeptical about empirical work.

The anti-empiricists, Murat explains, can be divided into two groups: certainty anti-empiricists and complexity anti-empiricists.

Among the certainty anti-empiricists was the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. “Mises believed that logical inference was far more certain and could apply far more generally than empirical inference,” says Murat, a PhD student in economics at the Higher School of Economics (HSE University) in Moscow. “Then there are a whole set of economists who argue that mathematical proofs offer more certainty than empirical studies.”

Those in the other camp, the complexity anti-empiricists, maintain that the world is too complex to apprehend with any confidence. An important figure here was Friedrich Hayek, who famously argued that knowledge was too dispersed to be gathered into one convenient place.

When asked what he wants people to derive from his research, Murat says, “Humility. Keep an open mind. True, we have lots of data now, and far better methods than before. But we should be more skeptical about the ability of empirical studies to tell us everything we want to know.”

Murat became interested in his subject when he came across the literature on minimum wages, especially the empirical studies in the early 1990s that challenged the prevailing theory.

“The way economists reacted caught my attention,” says Murat, who plays classical piano and has even composed a few pieces. “Some economists said that even if the empirical studies show that the theory might be wrong, there is some higher truth that theory speaks to. I want to explore the arguments behind the idea of a higher truth.”

This is Murat’s second visit to the United States. In 2014, he spent three weeks in Los Angeles in an English-language program. During the program, he took a helicopter ride over the city and sat on a beach talking about God to missionaries. He even saw a big metal bust of Lenin.

“I enjoy it here,” Murat says of Duke and Durham. “I mean, around the corner from my house is a tuba museum,” the pianist-turned-historian says. “How cool is that?”

Murat will return to Moscow in April.